Friday, June 6, 2014

Impressions #6: Murdered: Soul Suspect

This week, I purchased one of the most unique games that I have played so far this year: Murdered: Soul Suspect. Set in the town of Salem, Massachusetts, Murdered has players assume the role of Ronan O'Connor. Ronan is a detective working for the Salem Police Department. At the start of the game, he is killed attempting to apprehend the “Bell Killer”, a mysterious serial killer who marks his victims with the symbol of a bell. Unfortunately, our hero is unable to move on to the next world without settling all of his unfinished business in this one. Therefore, the quest is on to solve the mystery of the Bell Killer. Because the game just came out and the mystery is a big part of the game, this article will be spoiler free.

It is pretty simple to understand the basic premises of the story. The game poses a mystery and asks the player to join the main character in solving it. Honestly, the case of the Bell Killer is pretty easy to solve. I figured out most of it by the end of my first hour into the game. Honestly, I expect most players with even a passing familiarity either with mystery tropes or the history of Salem to figure out what is going on. Having said that, I acknowledge that it could have been really easy to throw this in the other direction. It would be trivial to hide the whole case behind some last minute reveal or piece of evidence that no person could be reasonably expect to see coming, like a typical CSI episode. Out of those two choices, I would rather the approach taken in this game. It is a hard balance between these two extremes to maintain. While the writers did not fully succeed, I must applaud the effort.

Despite having many of the trappings of a classic noir story like a gruff detective with a bizarre case falling on their lap, the game is nothing like that. Ronan seems a little gruff, but he does not go overboard in these traits. This extends to most of the cast as well. Every character feels believable. None of them are incredible near-superhero people with amazing abilities. While Ronan's partner is a medium, she behaves in a way one might expect a fifteen year old girl who can see/talk to ghosts to act. Overall, I actually related fairly well to the cast. This was partially the reason why I stuck with it well after figuring most of the case out myself. By the time I solved the case, I felt a strong enough connection to the cast that I wanted to see how they resolved everything.

In terms of gameplay, it is tempting to believe that Murdered: Soul Suspect is just another “story game” along the lines of some of David Cage's work. This is again not the case. In actuality, Murdered feels more at home with games along the lines of LA Noire or Monkey Island. By that, I mean that it is very much a point-and-click adventure. When it is embracing this style, the game is very good. In a given investigation area, the game will pose to a question to the player like (as an example) “What was the killer doing here?”. With this question in mind, players have to look around the area for clues that could help them answer this question. The game helpfully says how many clues are in a given area and points out when the player has left an investigation zone, so it is unlikely for players to get lost. Further, all the clues and story information gathered are conveniently stored in a menu to view at any time. Once the player feels like enough clues have been collected, they can use them to answer the question and discover their next lead in the investigation.
Unfortunately, the game, like most point-and-click adventures, tend to suffer from problems inherit to the genre. That is, instead of using what seems to be perfectly logical, the player is forced to think about what the designer considers to be logical. To demonstrate this point, after following a lead, Ronan heads to a church. One of the clues in this area prompts him to ask “What clue that I picked up lead me to the church?”. Rather than selecting the clue that lead to the deduction, the player must instead choose Ronan's revelation than he needed to go to the church (because story information and deductions are treated like any other clue). Luckily, this did not come up too often for me in the later segments of the game. However, this presents an unnecessary learning curve for players that might not otherwise exist. Still, this is clearly where the game is at its strongest and most comfortable.

The other half of the main gameplay loop is noticeably weaker. The spiritual world that Ronan inhabits is a sort of limbo that is overlaid on top of the real world. In this realm, other ghosts who have their own baggage dwell. Some of these spirits have given in to their intense negative emotions and become demons. These demons have lost any form of humanity, believing that they can regain it by absorbing other human souls. Ronan cannot fight these demons head-on. What he has to do is hide, either in a human's body or in the ecoplasmic remains of another spirit. When the opening presents itself, the player can sneak behind the demon and exorcise it. Through triggering TVs and radios poltergeist-style, it is also possible to create these opening by distracting the demons.
These sections of the game are not particularly offensive. However, I found that I died to them a lot, often for stupid reasons. They proved to be easily the worst and most frustrating element of the entire game. Worse, they do not seem to have a real purpose in the game beyond serving as an arbitrary obstacle. Considering the game can already be beaten in an afternoon, it feels weird to call it out for needless padding. However, that is how I would describe the ghosts. In fact, the game might be stronger by removing quite a few of their sections out.

Overall, Murdered: Soul Suspect is one of the most unique games I played this year. I am really glad that I bought it. While I do have gripes about the game, I cannot deny that it has the kind of charm that comes from a really good B-movie. I am not entirely sure that it is worth the $50 asking price, I would easily recommend this to anyone with even a vague interest in the point-and-click genre. It works in a ways that many other games do not. Moreover, it is a nice breath of fresh air. I am saddened because despite how much I like the game, I do not expect it to do well. I expect it to inherit the same space Alpha Protocol does for me, where only a small cult following will buy the game. Considering that the people who made it, while far from perfect, were definitely on to something, that is truly a shame.

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